Sunday, April 28, 2013

Birth of an Unknown Woman

If I were to be the owner of a grand repertory cinema with the ability to curate and put on double features of my choice, I think I found a perfect evening for my patrons. It would be a double feature dedicated to the greatest of all niche genres, "women who lie to themselves", and would feature Max Ophuls' 1948 tragic romance Letter from an Unknown Woman and Jonathan Glazer's reincarnatory love story Birth. The two films really, truly feel as if they couldn't be more dissimilar to one another, and yet as I sat in the Museum of Modern Art watching a 35mm print of Ophuls' seemingly overlooked drama I couldn't help but think the two films, separated by some 56 years of history, were peas in a pod.

It's a beautiful film, for sure, on a visual and dramatic level. The story of a famous pianist who receives a mysterious letter from a woman who claims to have loved him for her entire life only to have been turned away because he was too blind to see who she was. Of course, the tragedy becomes twofold for reasons that seem rather obvious from the opening scene, but that's neither here nor there. For somebody who is notoriously fickle with the tears they shed, I did get quite a bit misty-eyed of Unknown Woman with its delicately fragile lead performance by Joan Fontaine (we were just have a laugh with her last week!) and her tale of operatic woe. The cinematography of Franz Planer is gorgeous with its beautiful rendering of snow and shadow. My particular favourite shot it that overhead shot of Fontaine's "unknown woman" walking away her body casts a shadow as long as her gloom. Just divine.

But where the connection to Birth comes in is remarkable. The films share so much and yet it was something that I only noticed when Unknown Woman, which I had obviously never seen before, utilised the scene of an opera in a very similar way to Glazer's. As Fontaine's Lisa takes her seat to watch Mozart's The Magic Flute, she has just been confronted with the realisation that her one true love has returned. Whilst not quite in the same mysterious fashion as the situation that confronts Nicole Kidman's character in Birth, but the two characters wrestle with their feelings as the power of the music wash over them. It's remarkable how similar the scenes and the character motivations behind them are. Sadly, we are not treated to a masterful three-minute sequence of beguiling close-up in Letter from the Unknown Woman like we are in Birth - I suppose this very mainstream-leaning romance film wasn't quite the place for such a visual move in 1940s Hollywood - but the effect is one and the same. It works.

Image source, FIPRESCI
From there, the two films felt like nothing less than sisters. The stories of Fontaine's Lisa and Kidman's Anne seemingly etched together as they each emerge out of the intimidating shadow of the men who took their former flame's place and decide to persue something that seems foolhardy and destined for failure, but which neither women can truly come to terms with until it's staring them blankly in the face. Both women go to personally tragic places in order to be with the love of their life, only to have it suggested by the man himself that it wasn't that all along. They mourn very obviously on the inside, harbouring long-gestating pain within them, while putting on an external face of strength. And even though the man at the centre of Unknown Woman is obviously a very dashing, handsome man, and the boy at the centre of Birth is, well, a boy, both stories tell a very salient point on what the idea of an all-encompassing love can do to us in the long term if it is interrupted by the natural order of things. Funnily enough, in Unknown Woman the love is interrupted by a birth, and in Birth it is interrupted by death. Make of that as you wish.

That they also share the aforementioned stunning cinematography, plus great musical scores (Desplat's work on Birth remains one of the greatest things my ears have ever heard), and bona fide immaculate performances by the respective lead actors are just cherries on top. Birth has been said to have been influenced by Kubrick, which I think is definitely on point to a degree, but having now see Ophuls' film I can't separate the two. Nor do I want to, even if my mind is just playing tricks. I now covet both of these films separately and together. I want to soak in their opulence and live in a world where I get to yearn for somebody with the strength and dedication as them. Although, hopefully, my yearning would have a happier ending.

I was thankfully able to view Letter from an Unknown Woman in 35mm print form, which was a wonderful relief. MoMA are screening it again on Monday at 5pm so hopefully I have maybe inspired you to jump on the subway to 53rd street. Coincidentally, Birth will also be screening on 5 June and 12 June at MoMA in a tribute season to cinematographer Harris Savides. I have been told by the MoMA people that it too is screening in 35mm. If somebody would put them together, side-by-side, I think you'd have one hell of devastating double.

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